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Den belgiske småbyen Maaseik ble i all stillhet et senter for Den marokkanske islamske kampgruppa GICM. Det første tegn på at noe var galt var at det dukket opp svartkledte skikkelser på skolen som skremte barna.

The phones at city hall began ringing nonstop one morning last year when several masked figures were spotted walking through the cobbled streets of this pastoral town. A small panic erupted when one of the figures, covered head to ankle in black fabric, appeared at a school and scared children to tears.

It turned out the people were not hooded criminals, but six female residents of Maaseik who were displaying their Muslim piety by wearing burqas , garments that veiled their faces, including their eyes. After calm was restored, a displeased Mayor Jan Creemers summoned the women to his office.

«I said, ‘Ladies, you can be dressed all in Armani black for all I care, but please do not cover your faces,’ » Creemers recalled. «I tried to talk to them about it, but it was impossible. They said, ‘We are the only true believers of the Koran.'»

What the city elders did not know at the time was that the women came from households in which several men had embraced radical Islam and joined a terrorist network that was setting up sleeper cells across Europe, according to Belgian federal prosecutors and court documents from Italy, Spain and France.

Jihadistene holdt en meget lav profil. De dukket ikke opp på «radaren». Det var burqaene som vakte interesse hos overvåkingspolitiet, men de forsto ikke rekkevidden. De trodde det dreide seg om smugling av illegale landbruksarbeidere. Derfor fikk saken navnet Operation Asparagus.

Historien viser at spørsmålet om klesdrakt og religion har sine sider. Hvis man først godtar retten til religiøs klesdrakt på arbeidsplass eller skole, kan det bli vanskeligere å fange opp radikalisering av samme type som i Maaseik. Stipendiat Njål Høstmælingen argumenterer intenst for retten til å bære hijab, uten å ta med slike konsekvenser.

Historien fra Maaseik viser dessuten at en søvnig provinsby kan være det perfekte sted å gjemme seg bort for en sovende celle. Den fungerer også som møteplass, og et sted man kan gjemme seg bort. Maaseik fylte alle tre funksjoner.

The town had served as a haven for suspects in the Madrid train explosions that killed 191 people in March 2004, for instance, as well as an important meeting place for the GICM’s European leadership.

The Belgian investigation underscores the challenges that authorities in Europe face in tracking down sleeper cells and in sorting vaguely suspicious behavior from imminent danger.

Madrid-connection

Fordi Maaseik lå så avsides til, kunne GICM ta seg friheter. Byen har bare 24.000 innbyggere, hvorav 800 er marokkanere. Den har tidligere ingen historie som radikalt arnested.

In November 2003, several key figures in the GICM traveled to Maaseik from Spain and France for a rare meeting, according to Spanish and French court documents.

The GICM’s European cells normally avoided direct contact with each other so that they wouldn’t attract attention from police. But the network had seen several of its leaders arrested in Morocco after terrorist bombings in Casablanca six months earlier and was trying to regroup, the court documents show. Maaseik was emerging as an important hub.

Det gikk an å gjemme seg bort i Maaseik. Det viste historien om den ettersøkte terroristen Lahoussine Haski.

Among those attending the meeting was Lahoussine Haski, a Moroccan with a history of fighting for radical Islamic causes in Chechnya, Afghanistan and other places, according to Belgian investigators and court documents.

Haski arrived in Maaseik holding a false passport, on the run from authorities in Morocco who had issued a warrant for his arrest on terrorism charges. In Saudi Arabia, he was listed by the government as one of the 26 most-wanted terrorist suspects in the kingdom for his alleged role in a series of bombings.

After months of hiding out in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey, Haski needed a refuge. Maaseik seemed safe. He married a local woman. Later, she would become one of the half-dozen women who caused a ruckus in town by donning their black burqas.

Blew it

Operation Asparagus ble «blåst» da det regulære nederlandske politiet stanset en konditor for en bagatell med bilen og oppdaget at han var etterlyst for terrorismee i Marokko. Mannen var hjemmehørende i Maaseik. Slik begynte ballen å rulle. Belgisk sikkerhetspoliti hadde ikke varslet lokalt politi. Nå måtte de slå til før tiden.

In early June 2004, they were tipped off by Italian anti-terrorism police about a Moroccan suspect in Brussels. In wiretapped conversations recorded by the Italians, the man was overheard telling another radical in Milan that he and three friends were ready to carry out suicide attacks in Belgium.

Belgian police responded with several raids and made 15 arrests in what they called Operation Asparagus 2.

More arrests followed. In July 2004, Belgian police nabbed Lahoussine Haski, the most-wanted suspect in Saudi Arabia, in Maaseik after he returned from a trip to Syria and Turkey. Two months later, they arrested another Maaseik man and charged him with membership in the GICM.

In December, Spanish police arrested Haski’s brother, Hassan Haski, in the Canary Islands and charged him with trying to set up yet another GICM cell to launch attacks on the Spanish 2_kommentarland. Investigators later concluded that Hassan Haski had visited Maaseik on six or seven occasions. Spanish court documents describe him as «one of the most important current leaders» of the network.

Politiet sliter med å finne bevis. De finner indikasjoner på sammensvergelse. Men det er ikke alltid like lett å overbevise dommeren om at kodeordene betyr et angrep.

Storyen viser at Schengen og Europas åpne grenser er et El Dorado også for mennesker med kriminelle hensikter. Terroristene og deres sympatisører er ikke mange, men de er spredt over mange land, og opprulling er vanskelig.

Befolkningen i Maaseik har ennå vanskeligheter med å forstå at den lille byen deres har vært innblandet i bombene i Casablanca og Madrid.

Etterretningspolitiet erkjenner at de er på etterskudd og mangler oversikten.

How a Town Became a Terror Hub
Belgian Haven Seen At Heart of Network
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service